Unabated to the QB, Week 14: Identity Crises

“There exists an obvious fact that seems utterly moral: namely, that a man is always a prey to his truths. Once he has admitted them, he cannot free himself from them. One has to pay something.”

–Albert Camus

In my predictions at the beginning of the season, I refrained from picking a Super Bowl matchup. Part of this is because predicting the playoffs at the start of the season seems superfluous: So much depends on matchups that are unlikely to come to fruition, and it’s almost contradictory to predict an upset within the context of my own hypothetical playoffs.* The other part was superstition: I was afraid of the ramifications of picking the Giants.

*This is to say, why would I think a team that I predicted would only go 10-6 would beat a team that I predicted would finish 13-3?

I can’t say my Super Bowl forecast—Giants and Patriots—was unique. It was hard to find anyone who wasn’t picking the Giants to represent the NFC, and most experts had the AFC coming down to the Pats and Chargers.

With three weeks left in the regular season now, the Giants and Patriots have each reached a crisis point, although varying in degrees. Big Blue, at 7-6, no longer controls its destiny in the Wild Card hunt, requiring at least one Dallas loss to make the playoffs. New England still leads the AFC East by a game, and most—myself included—still expect the Patriots to win the division.

But two of the league’s presumptive favorites—and two of its best teams over the past decade—have each suffered from identity crises this season, which in turn were derived from unexpected offensive success.

Let’s take the Giants first. Last season, the Giants won 11 of their first 12 games by running the ball extensively behind the best offensive line in football with an excellent power back and an adequate change-of-pace guy (Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward, respectively). At the end of the season, however, and most memorably in the playoff loss to the Eagles, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride put more of the offense in Eli Manning’s hands. That trend has carried over to this year, where the Giants—with the same, albeit inexplicably less effective, offensive line—rank tenth in the league in rushing. Jacobs had 100 carries during the team’s 5-0 start; he has 102 in their 2-6 stretch since. The only real explanation for this is that Gilbride grew too confident in Manning and the team’s wide receivers during that five-game winning streak, forgetting all-too often to stick with the run. The result is that Jacobs, the very definition of a wear-the-defense-down running back, not only doesn’t get the ball enough to be effective, but more and more he’s running out of the shotgun—which means he doesn’t get a running start into the line of scrimmage—and to the outside.

Furthermore, when you have a defense as alarmingly vulnerable to the big play as the Giants’, running the ball becomes even more important to keep that defense off the field—and to punish the opponent for scoring fast and not resting its own D. Instead, New York has decided to try to outshoot teams like New Orleans and Philadelphia after falling behind early; the results have not been good.

New England, on the other hand, has become a completely offensive team with a completely pass-oriented offense. Remember the 2001 Patriots when it was about Antowain Smith on the ground, a great defense, and Troy Brown on special teams? Starting in 2007, New England became a passing team; this wasn’t a problem because it was the greatest passing offense in NFL history. But while the Patriots were building that offense, it neglected the defensive side of the ball, failing to replace veterans with younger guys. In the last two years, NE lost Junior Seau, Mike Vrabel, Rodney Harrison, and Asante Samuel on the defensive end among others. When NE traded away Richard Seymour—a move that independently made sense—it left its defense almost completely lacking in playmakers.

The result for the Patriots is a team that can’t get big stops (see: Indy and Miami) and an offense that, without Tom Brady at full health or Randy Moss at full attention, doesn’t approach the potency of even the 2008 version.

All that said, if the NFL Playoffs have taught us anything the last several years, it’s that they’re impossible to predict. Momentum is difficult to judge: the Colts entered last season’s playoffs on a nine-game winning streak while the Cardinals lost four of their last six…and the two wins were over teams that went 6-26. A No. 1 seed hasn’t won the Super Bowl since 2003, and No. 6 seeds have more playoff wins the last four seasons than top seeds (nine to six).

All that means that while the Giants and Pats look dead now, they might be primed to pull one of those contradictory playoff upsets.

  • Just to point out: If Buffalo had hung on in Week 1 at Gillette, they would be 6-7, one game behind MIA, NE, and NYJ at 7-6 in that division.
  • After three wins in a row, it’s time to reinstate the Jets Bash of the Week: Hey “Gang Green,” you know who did an even better job defensively against the Bucs in Tampa this season: the Giants’ defense!
  • Jim Caldwell will rest his starters because Jim Caldwell is too scared to actually make a decision as coach of the Indianapolis Colts.
  • And that decision—whichever way it goes—has a huge impact on the AFC playoff picture with Jacksonville and the Jets coming up the next two weeks for Indy.
  • Just as intriguing to me as the Colts’ and Saints’ winning streaks is the Chargers’ December streak, which now stands at 16 in a row. Like, Philip Rivers has never lost a game he started in December. That’s really impressive. And if I had to pick my AFC Champion right now, San Diego’s it.
  • After Ray Rice’s standout performance against the Lions, Peter King said that Rice is “emerging as a top-10 back.” In doing so, King manages to be both understated and tardy: Rice has been one of the 3-5 best running backs in football pretty much all season, like I said last week.
  • It’s nice to see that the record for most receptions in an NFL game is held by a classier guy than Terrell Owens, even if that classier guy is Brandon Marshall.
  • Speaking of Owens, Michael Wilbon just said, “You know what’s sad? He’s become irrelevant.” I agree completely, so long as you replace “sad” with “awesome.”
  • The Packers have nine wins? And the Bears have eight losses? When did that happen?
  • Most exciting game of the upcoming week: Miami and Tennessee. Elimination game in the playoff race, and I think the winner grabs the last Wild Card spot.
  • Just when you want to buy into the Cardinals…
  • Should we pencil in Cincinnati’s first-round loss now, or do you want to wait another week?
  • You see that Bills-Chiefs game? Have any other teams played more forgettable games this year than Buffalo and Kansas City? Everyone who attended the 1993 AFC Championship must be sick.
  • SBCS: New Orleans, Indianapolis, Minnesota, San Diego, Philadelphia
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